Backpacker choosing an off-trail route down the snowfield below Elk Pass
There are places on earth to which my mind wanders in quiet moments, thinking back to great hikes through alpine wilderness. The Goat Rocks Wilderness is one of those places. The Goat Rocks are the remains of a 12,000 foot Cascades volcano that blew its top some two million years ago, leaving jagged peaks reaching to over 8,000 feet. Located in Washington State between two “living” volcanoes, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, the Goat Rocks Wilderness is part of the Gifford Pinchot and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. But enough geography. What I want to tell you about is one of the great hikes in America.
Five of us left the North Fork Tieton Trailhead at the start of Labor Day weekend, for a five day backpacking trip. I was the lone male with four ladies, including my wife, Karen, and friends Betty, Sue, and Joan. As we shouldered our packs, a group left just ahead of us on horseback, which would be an easier way to go if we had horses. We don’t. Plus I think my photography of natural details would suffer if I was always looking way down from the high perch of a horse.
The first part of the trail is a long, but gradual ascent to a ridge where the North Fork Tieton Trail meets the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT, also known as Trail 2000). This trail leads through old-growth forest with huge hemlocks and firs; streams trickle down off the high ridges. When we reached the PCT, we turned left and marched toward the McCall Basin, where we planned to camp for four nights. Along this stretch of trail, we encountered a series of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, which I detailed in a previous blog entry Pickles, Seven, Money and More.
We camped the first night in lower McCall Basin, along a bend in the North Fork Tieton River. In the subalpine meadows here, wildflowers bloomed late. On our previous hike to this basin on the same weekend some six years
Tieton Peak catching the last light above McCall Basin
before, we encountered only late gentians in bloom; this time, the wildflowers were at a peak of color. The snow must have melted out late this year. The mountains above McCall Basin were catching the alpenglow on this clear evening. As we drifted off to sleep, the trumpeting cries of a band of Elk drifted down from the nearby mountainsides.
The next morning we decided to move to a different campsite in what we call the Upper McCall Basin. While the lower McCall Basin is gentle and flat with beautiful meadows studded by pointy firs, the upper basin feels raw, as if the glaciers left just yesterday. It is a distinctly different experience to be up there, but it is lonely and has the feeling of real wilderness, where humans can only be visitors. We set up our new camp in a patch of woods, then set off to explore the upper basin.
A waterfall plunging into an ice cave in the cirque of Upper McCall Basin
The day was cold and windy with a threat of rain from low, gray clouds overhead, so layers of fleece and down and wind-blocking shells were the rule. With warm woolen hats knitted in Nepal. Again, we were surprised at the lush wildflowers still in bloom. Near a series of cliffs and waterfalls, we found a family of Hoary Marmots, with three youngsters sitting on a big rock while the mother looked on nearby. Unfortunately, that was the only wildlife we saw in the basin, other that the freshly-picked bones of an Elk fawn. When we had hiked here six years ago, we counted 32 Mountain Goats and a band of 10 Elk. Later, back in camp, we met a man who reminded me of Moses; he carried a tall staff, had flowing gray hair, and was leading a flock of fellow hikers on a long day hike. We told him that we were disappointed at the lack of Mountain Goats. He then told us a long story, relating how a rogue hunter had entered the basin in early autumn six years before and had singlehandedly murdered an entire band of 44 Mountain Goats, leaving their carcasses to rot on the cold ground. He said that the authorities were still hoping that the killer would blab in some bar, bragging at what he had done, and would eventually be caught. Moses described this terrible story with such earnestness that we were all bummed for the entire weekend. Well, maybe that’s overstating our degree of bummedness, but we did indeed feel bad. Moses also told of hunters who had killed a 600 pound bear very close to where we made our camp. That put us on edge, so we made sure to hang our food high. Then Moses led his flock out of our basin and back out of the wilderness.
An addendum: When I returned to civilization, I made inquiries to the U.S. Forest Service, to a state DNR biologist, and to a prominent local outdoor writer about the killing of the Mountain Goats. None of them had heard of it. The writer said that he had been hearing stories of massive goat kills in the Goat Rocks Wilderness since he was a teenager, and that once he had even gone up in a helicopter to try and confirm a story. None of these incidents had ever been confirmed, so he thinks they are all merely myths spread by word-of-mouth. While many people are fooled by urban myths on the internet, we were apparently duped by a wilderness myth told by Moses. Anyway, I’m glad it wasn’t true … or was it?
The Pacific Crest Trail climbs through high subalpine forests
The next morning we rose early to make breakfast and prepare for our hike to the high and barren ridges crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, the day dawned gray and cold again, so we would have to hope for better weather as the day wore on. It didn’t happen.
Snowfields and raw rock on a peak hidden by dense clouds
As we walked upward along the PCT, we walked into the clouds and it began snowing. Scraggly fir trees wore a fresh coat of ice, and we wore every layer we had, including mittens. As we approached Elk Pass, I found a high gravel plateau overlooking the valley below. Here Mountain Goats had rested.
Shallow bed created by a Mountain Goat on a high overlook
We saw where they had used their feet to scape rocks out of the way, forming roughly circular beds where they could comfortably rest. There was also plenty of scattered goat scat. I picked up a piece of chert that looked out of place; about 2.5 inches in diameter, its edges had been worked into a tool by ancient hunters. It may have been used to scrape Mountain Goat hides in this very location several thousand years ago.
Chert tool left on a high overlook, perhaps for several thousand years
The sense of timelessness of wilderness came upon me in a rush. Looking around, I also found numerous obsidian flakes that had been made by native Americans long ago. In researching this location later, I found out that early Indians had an obsidian mine site at Elk Pass that archaeologists say was used from 6,500 to 500 years B.P. (before present); they came up here both to hunt and to mine the volcanic stone from which they could create arrowheads and other tools. I can just imagine people looking out from this high ridge for thousands of years. But if they were here on a day like this, they would see only gray clouds.
Twisted trees enduring fresh snow blowing through the high country
We climbed higher, eventually reaching Elk Pass. We passed hikers coming from the other side of the Goat Rocks, including one young man who had just emerged from the clouds. He said apprehensively that he had never done anything like this before. He may never again, but at least he will have the memory of a solid accomplishment in his life. While resting at the pass, I decided that Elk Pass should be renamed “Dead Elk Pass,” at least for this hiking season. On a snowbank just below the pass lay the carcass of an adult Elk, with the nearby remains of either a very young Elk or an Elk fetus. The bones had been recently picked clean, with Gray Jays still doing their wilderness duty of visiting the bones to get the last remnants of meat as we watched. We don’t know if the Elk may have died in birthing its young, or if it was surprised by a Cougar at the pass. A predator–probably a Cougar but perhaps a Coyote–had left scats right atop the rib cage bones of the younger Elk. I’m not an expert, but the constrictions in the scat would indicate Cougar, which may be more than you wanted to know.
Adult Elk skeleton at Elk Pass (above) with skeleton of fawn or fetus about 30′ away (below)
I spent perhaps an hour at Elk Pass photographing, while some of our group hiked higher into the clouds. They got very cold and soon returned. We decided that the threat of hypothermia from blowing snow on the exposed ridge was too great, and we began our long descent back to camp, regretting that the views weren’t better.
Warming ourselves around a campfire that night, we talked about a strategy for the next day. We decided that if it was once again cold and gray, we would hike out a day early. But if the first person to get up the next morning saw clear skies, at least some of us would again attempt the same hike as we did today. Awakening at 4:00 a.m. to answer nature’s call outside, I saw only a heavy cloud cover. But when I was the first one up two hours later, I was greeted by a sea of blue sky. I woke everyone and suggested we try again. So we ate a quick breakfast and motivated our tired bodies to again begin the long trudge up to Elk Pass. But this day was different, exhilaration was in the air.
As we hiked higher, we encountered several Hoary Marmots who didn’t mind posing for pictures. The views from the ridge were wonderful and became better the higher we climbed, though there were some clouds forming. We went still higher beyond Elk Pass, passing a Mountain Goat chilling out on a snowfield and a couple of Gray-crowned Rosy Finches foraging in the talus–true residents of the high country. We could see for miles on the exposed ridge and felt the exhilaration that always comes in high places. Maybe it’s the thin air!
This ridge is steep and narrow; there are old, wind-blasted U.S. Forest Service signs dating from way back in the last century that warn travelers that it was only safe to take 30 stock at a time over the next stretch of trail. We met PCT thru-hikers who proclaimed that this was the most magnificent stretch of the long trail since the best of California’s High Sierra mountains. And still higher we climbed, to the highest point along the trail. Then the time caught up with us and we realized that it was time to descend quickly to camp. We arrived back at deep twilight, satisfied with a day well-spent in the mountains. We slept well on our last night, happy after the day’s wonderful experiences.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds through subalpine meadows north of Elk Pass
Lupine and other wildflowers border an alpine stream
Mt. Ives viewed from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Goat Rocks
The PCT follows a steep ridge near Elk Pass
Remnant snowfield with watermelon snow
The highlight on our last morning was when Betty put on her bright magenta camp slippers–a nice complement to the violet-blue lupines around camp. Then we packed up and began the long trek down out of the Goat Rocks, another memorable trip to add to the stories of our lives.
Betty’s “Fairy Slippers” for wearing around camp
Trail Statistics: 7.5 miles and 2,000′ elevation gain from North Fork Tieton River Trailhead to our camp in McCall Basin (4.9 miles to PCT, 1.6 miles along PCT, 1 mile along side trail into McCall Basin, where there are plenty of horse and backpacker campsites). Our camp in the upper McCall Basin was at 5,320′ elevation. The round-trip hikes to Elk Pass were about 8.5 miles and a 1,500 foot elevation gain. The highest point we reached above Elk Pass was about 400′ higher and half-a-mile farther.
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